LEXINGTON — He’s won only 12 games and lost 16 in a little over two seasons at Kentucky, but it’s not hard for coach Joker Phillips to explain why he thinks he deserves more time to get the football program back on track.
“Well, I mean, we got 72 freshmen and sophomores in this program. We just played a program (Western Kentucky) that has 50 juniors and seniors in their program,” Phillips said Monday. “We got to be better than that. But we got a lot of good, young players playing ball for us.”
He tried to deflect attention to Saturday’s game at No. 14 Florida by saying the “first order of business is focusing on Florida” and not worrying about his job status or what impact that would have own his players.
“We got to get them prepared, get them prepared for all the things that are involved when you're down a little bit. We got to get them prepared for this hostile environment we're about to go in,” Phillips said. “We have to continue to talk to our kids. This is a time they need us the most as coaches. We'll be there for them.”
Phillips played on an 0-10-1 team at Kentucky under coach Jerry Claiborne
‘I was on a team two years later that had a lot of young kids, I was one of those young kids, and two years later we were 9¿3. One of the last teams to win games,” Phillips said. “Staff here, same way. I was on a staff here that we had some ups and downs. We had a young team when we left (in 1996). But we had seven years. I got that. It's seven years. But at the time we had a young team that we left behind, two years later they were winning seven games.
“Again, we've put together a young team. We did it the right way. There will not be any investigations and those types of things here. We've done it the right way and we'll continue to do it the right way. Again, good, solid young team that we've got to get better every day. It starts by preparing for Florida.”
Phillips was UK’s offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator before becoming head coach. So why is UK¿so overloaded with freshmen and sophomores and short on juniors and seniors?
“For some reason or another, it just didn't work out,” Phillips said.
He said it was not bad timing or bad recruiting as some are suggesting.
“We got some really good kids in our upperclassmen. (All-SEC guard) Larry Warford, do you think that's bad recruiting? (Center) Matt Smith, started three years here. We just don't have a lot of the numbers in the senior and junior classes. We don't have 50. Some reason or another, that's the way it is.”
Phillips insisted his past experiences as a player and coach have him “built” for facing adversity like this.
“I've been around some head coaches that I've got a chance to watch go through this. We're fine. I'm fine,” he said. “I haven't got time to worry. My worry is making sure we get prepared for Florida.”
Phillips’ teams at UK¿that went 6-6 and then 9-3 after the 0-10-1 year had strong leadership. Same for Rich Brooks’ team that came back from the brink of disaster to make the Music City Bowl in 1996.
“I see a talented freshman quarterback, talented young receivers, some talented backs. We got some guys that will be real good leaders. We have some good leaders in this senior class,” Phillips said. “(Junior) Avery Williamson, he asked me, ‘How you doing, coach?’ I'm fine, how you doing, Avery? He said, ‘Coach, we'll be fine. We just got to hang in there.’ He said this. We got some really good leaders on this football team.”
More Sweat: Phillips said one thing Kentucky must do is get the ball to freshman receiver Demarcus Sweat more. He has a touchdown catch in UK’s last two games.
“He's touched it eight times this year, two touchdowns. Has had some huge returns for us in the kicking game. The thing we have to do is get the ball in his hands more,” Phillips said. “We'll try to work him into a starting role soon, okay? Maybe even this week. We'll rotate him with the one's, see how he handles it. He could possibly be a starter this week.
“Every week you say, ‘We got a plan, we got a plan.’ You get in the game. After the game, only played 11 plays. Played 11 plays. Touched it twice on offense. One of them was a huge touchdown for us. The plan is to start him. We'll look at that, see how that looks at the end of the week and make that decision going into the game.”